This was the biggest game of the season. United win and they may just cause some doubt in City’s minds. If City win it would be an 11 point gap and probably the end of the title race before Santa has poked his head down the chimney. City had not been at their absolute best heading into the game and United had improved in attack, but this ended up being a masterclass from Pep’s men and showed just how far behind United and everyone else are.
The main tactical decisions seemed to sit at the feet of Mourinho with Pep’s team firm favourites. Would United stick with the 3 at the back that has served them well the last few weeks? Who would fill the Paul Pogba shaped hole in the midfield? And how do United stop Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva? The answers, No, Ander Herrera and they didn’t. Silva and De Bruyne dictated the game from first to last minute and showed what United are missing.
Mourinho reverted back to 4 at the back, and inevitably Herrera was given the job alongside Nemanja Matic to stop City’s creativity. The surprise was seeing Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial on the same team sheet assuming Mourinho saw pace and energy as the solution to finally beating their fearsome rivals. City were setup as expected with Vincent Kompany passing his fitness test. City took control of the ball from the first minute and although De Gea had no real saves to make, City looked dangerous when they approached the United box. The superb Raheem Sterling found Gabriel Jesus in the area only for the young Brazillian to choose a back feel rather than what seemed a glorious goal scoring opportunity. Not too long after, Jesus found himself one on one with Marcos Rojo, sat him on his backside with ease before failing to guide the ball to the side of the United keeper. At the other end, there was nothing to report. Romelu Lukaku, as he has done for a while, looked lost, isolated and rather a spare part. Lingard for all his running and energy showed his limitations on the ball when it given the time and space he was offered at Vicarage Road and Rashford and Martial switched flanks which did bring United’s first threat in goal from the Frenchman. But, United just couldn’t hold onto the ball for any length in time.
For all their dominance, United would have been happy going into the break level, which they did, but not at 0-0. On 44 minutes, Ashley Young got caught under the ball which Leroy Sane took advantage of, forcing a smart save from De Gea. The following corner was whipped in and Lukaku was pathetic in his challenge to stop Nicolas Otamendi, the ball making its way to Silva about 5 yards out who took the simple task of guiding it into the net. City deserved to be leading but somehow United found an equaliser in injury time. A hopeful ball into the area was missed by Lukaku and more importantly Otamendi, taking Fabian Delph by surprise and Rashford ounces to slide it beyond Ederson. What a timely equaliser, they looked to raise the atmosphere amongst the home fans. Mourinho has a lifeline but it didn’t retract from what was a very average half. His team were second best all over the pitch.
The interval saw some substitutions from both sides, Vitor Lindelof replacing Rojo following a nasty clash of heads in the first half and once again, Kompany picked up an injury resulting in him being replaced by Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho slotting into the back 4. United came out seemingly with a little more attacking intent but this was more down to City’s slow start than United’s change of tactic. Martial looked much more potent on the left and generally produced most of the best moments, like he has all season. However, 10 minutes into the half, City were back in front and once more a defensive error from Lukaku was the reason. A corner came and landed at the feet of the Belgian inside the 6 yard box but his right footed clearance was badly mistimed, striking Chris Smalling on the back which fell nicely for Otamendi to sweep home. All the talk was how weak City have looked defending set pieces, so it was ironic that it was United who would be the ones struggling. That was twice in this game and once in the Arsenal game than Lukaku has been caught short in the opposite penalty area, maybe something that needs to be looked at. The goal prompted some further changes fro Pep Guardiola, with Jesus coming off for Eliaquim Mangala and Silva then played as a false 9, meaning the central areas were more controlled and that is exactly what happened. United tried to continue pressing and had the occasional success but in the main City were head and shoulders above United looking more dangerous in attack and no more so than when De Bruyne forced a great save out of De Gea just after the hour.
Mourinho needed to change it and opted to bring off the energy of Lingard for the power and height of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Not long after his introduction, saw the game’s biggest talking point, or at least it was made that way after the game by Mourinho. Ander Herrera, who spent most of the game trying to wind up the city players rather than playing football, stole the ball from Otamendi and went down under a challenge in the area. Old Trafford wanted a penalty but instead herrera was booked for simulation and Michael Oliver got it spot on. After the game Mourinho was adamant it was a penalty, but I have no idea which game he was watching. There was no contact and the Spaniard simply chucked himself to the floor, which he was doing for the whole game. I think herrera has lost his footballing ability since being deployed in a more holding role last season, really living off that one game where he man marked Eden Hazard. Instead United needed someone who could put their foot on the ball and control the game when in possession, a certain Mr Pogba would have done so, but United need more than just him. If only Paul Scholes was 10 years younger!! Juan Mata replaced his countryman not too long after the incident and immediately showed how much more class he possessed. I was surprised Mata didn’t start as it was clear that when United got the ball, which wasn’t often, they needed players to then be comfortable on it, without Mata there was hardly anyone else in a red shirt capable of doing so. The game and the title was drifting away from United, until 5 minutes from time they produced their best play and chance of the game. A brilliant pass from Mata put Martial in down the left, his controlled cross, first time on the volley was pin point for Lukaku who made a good connection but was unfortunate to see hit Ederson in the head. Mata followed up but Ederson recovered to make a brilliant second save and the for the ball to be scrambled away. That was the one chance to save their title hopes, but City saw that and the game out and the gap sits at 11 points heading into the busy Christmas period.
The title is surely all done and dusted, barring some serious injuries to City’s big players. I know Benjamin Mendy is a miss and John Stones and Kompany have had their injuries, but City are so good going forward, their defence can cope with some absentees. Instead, De Bruyne, Silva , Sane or Jesus would need to be injured at some stage to give anyone hope. Mourinho refused to admit his side were second best, but in reality they were. If truth be told, they were last weekend at the emirates too and for large parts at Vicarage Road. United have pulled off some brilliant results of late but Mourinho needs to seriously open his eyes to the lack of control his side can play with against the top sides. He is lacking in technically gifted players and instead goes for pace and power as a replacement. Unfortunately. time has moved on from when this was a successful tactic. Lukaku needs the service and if he was wearing light blue on Sunday, he would have looked a world beater. Signings are needed, the square pegs need to be removed from their round holes and he needs to go back to the drawing board. In United were simply outplayed and taught a lesson on Sunday and focus has to now go into the cups and looking to how they can compete with the big boys rather than try to simply survive.